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Postgrad [R]evolution: Documentary filmmaking

Cinema for thinkers

Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas teaches documentary at the Victorian College of the Arts School of Film and Television and is an independent filmmaker. His award winning films include Black Man’s Houses (1992), The Hillmen—A Soccer Fable (1996) and Least Said, Soonest Mended (2001). His most recent TV documentary is Welcome to Woomera (2004). His visit to the UK was supported by the Victorian College of the Arts staff development committee.

In May this year, I undertook a program of visits to a number of universities and film schools in England that offer production courses in documentary filmmaking. The trip arose primarily from contacts I had made over recent years at documentary conferences and other events. It wasn’t meant to be particularly systematic and the visits were necessarily brief (maximum one day) but it was an illuminating exercise nevertheless.

One area I was particularly interested to explore was that of higher research and, specifically, higher degrees by practice. It’s 4 years since a Masters by Research program was instituted in the VCA Film and TV School and currently 15 students are enrolled, most of whom are engaged in narrative screenwriting projects. In Australia, the notion of the PhD ‘by practice’, sometimes called a ‘production PhD’, is also becoming more common and the VCA now has 3 PhD students in film (under University of Melbourne rules they can submit a practice project plus 40,000 words instead of the standard 80,000 word thesis).

This development brings into focus the ‘thesis film’, a somewhat problematic concept but one in which there is growing interest and perhaps considerable potential. Some consider it as another way of making films at a time when the kinds of independent documentaries made through mainstream funding sources are restricted due to the hegemony of the broadcasters and funding agencies.

In Britain there is a growing recognition in film departments that a PhD by practice varies significantly between institutions (and sometimes even within institutions). I visited the Centre for Research and Education in Art and Media (CREAM) at the University of Westminster where a symposium had just been held “to share information and debate ideas about supervising and examining PhDs in the moving image practice area.” The symposium had been organised because nationally, “departments are working with a number of different models of the relation between theory and practice, and with somewhat differing expectations about what is submissable” (“Supervising and Examining Practice-based PhDs in the Moving Image-Symposium”,

From the perspective of documentary practitioners like myself, whose interests lie less with the theoretical, the question of most interest is how further study might contribute to the development of one’s own filmmaking. This is particularly important because creative development is not encouraged by an industry increasingly using government funding as a means of subsidising the manufacture of television programs rather than supporting independent filmmaking.

The ‘thesis film’ is clearly no panacea for this situation. However, its growth could perhaps contribute to a diversification of documentary making and the development of the form. The problem with seeing research by practice as an opportunity to make films in an under-funded area lies in the nature of the PhD tradition itself. As with a written thesis, the thesis film cannot simply be a record of the research undertaken. It has to be a work of original research in itself, which adds to the existing knowledge and understanding of the form in an original and significant way. Steven Maras at the University of Western Sydney has recently written about this. As he says, “the thesis film is more than just a film with a thesis (or argument). The film is the thesis” (“Screenwriting and the ‘Thesis—film’: Notes on a genre to come,” Cultural Studies Review, Vol 10 No 2, Sep 2004). The question for the documentary practitioner then becomes, how does one make a film that serves the purposes and requirements of a PhD but is also accessible to a general audience?

Maras describes the thesis film as one that “seeks to ‘think’ in the medium of presentation. This might include aspects of talking head intellectualism but goes further in performing the ideas through the devices and techniques of an audio-visual medium. By ‘performing the ideas’, I mean more than presenting an audio-visual analogue or illustration of a particular idea, or even a poetically evocative elaboration of the theme, but a gesture that furthers the overall thesis of the film, or elaborates on the complexity of the issue.” In other words perhaps, the ideas determine the form rather than the form merely illustrating the ideas. Such films may be essayist or experimental in nature, but not necessarily.

This notion of the thesis film is not new of course. There are a number of significant examples in the annals of Australian documentary that qualify but which were not funded through University Departments or higher research grants. They include Ross Gibson’s Camera Natura (1985), Gillian Leahy’s My Life Without Steve (1986) and John Hughes’ One Way Street (1992). Not only were these films funded through mainstream funding agencies such as the Australian Film Commission but they were widely appreciated by general audiences, including at film festivals, and, in the case of One Way Street at least, by an ABC TV primetime audience.

It is almost impossible to imagine films like these being commissioned, funded or screened via the mainstream today, such has been the effect of market forces on public broadcasting in Australia. Sure, there have been some interesting developments in ‘hybrid docs’, ‘docusoap’ and ‘reality TV’ formats but the notion of making documentaries about complex ideas, never mind the notion of ‘thinking’ with film, has become anathema in an era when homogenisation and globalised franchising of formulaic genres rule the day, along with ratings. Nowadays one rarely experiences such films even at the major film festivals.

So the growth of interest in the production PhD and the thesis film might be timely. As Maras says, an important aspect of this development “comes from the notion that while the dominant medium of thinking, reading and writing for the past 2 centuries has been the book, it is possible to think in other media. Indeed, electronic media forms such as hypertext change the rules of the game for the presentation and argument structure of scholarly work.” In this regard, other forms of higher degrees by practice such as interactive works are also becoming more common. No wonder institutions are now scrambling to establish the ground rules for this kind of higher research, in order to maintain the standards of the Masters or the PhD as “original research” and to satisfy those traditionalists who see these as essentially theoretical endeavours requiring written exegesis.

In contrast to the potentially dulling hand of institutional requirements it is interesting to note that a thesis film might actually be fun. One PhD student I met in England is looking at science documentaries. Having identified this as the most conservative, formulaic and rigid form of the documentary—despite the myriad devices used to jazz them up—this student is looking to devise a new form that will transcend the illustrated talk and be more ‘open’ whilst not betraying the requirements of scientific methodology. An interesting project, though needless to say, he hasn’t cracked it yet.

There are of course a lot more questions about research by practice in film which I can’t go into here, not least those concerned with the practical issues of cost, technology, equipment and production values. But in the context of tertiary institutions in Australia such as the VCA, which provide production courses in the various forms of filmmaking and/or new media, all this is more than just interesting. Why? Because we should not simply be concerned with providing industry training but in playing a significant role in the development of film practice—in other words, contributing to the debate.

In the words of Dr Erik Knudsen, whom I met at the Adelphi Research Institute at the University of Salford in Manchester and who was the first person there to attain a PhD by practice in filmmaking in 2002: “The notion of media practice programs merely being training opportunities for aspiring young people intoxicated by the lure of the film and television business while the industry defers its training responsibilities to the higher education sector has evolved. I believe higher education can forge a strong presence within the overall media sector by defining its role as the place where innovation, research and development is taking place. If higher education had strong roots in such practice-based innovation and research, the quality of the programs would strengthen and the results, hopefully, would become apparent on our television and cinema screens” (“Doctorate by Media Practice—A Case Study”, Adelphi Research Centre internal paper, University of Salford).

Steve Thomas teaches documentary at the Victorian College of the Arts School of Film and Television and is an independent filmmaker. His award winning films include Black Man’s Houses (1992), The Hillmen—A Soccer Fable (1996) and Least Said, Soonest Mended (2001). His most recent TV documentary is Welcome to Woomera (2004). His visit to the UK was supported by the Victorian College of the Arts staff development committee.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 19

© Steve Thomas; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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